5 Braves Under the Most Pressure to Step Up Down the Stretch

Daniel Kock@@dannykockContributor IIIAugust 21, 2014

5 Braves Under the Most Pressure to Step Up Down the Stretch

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    The Atlanta Braves have shown signs of life after an eight-game losing streak looked to severely damage their postseason hopes.

    While they still sit six games behind the Washington Nationals in the division, they have pulled to 1.5 games behind the San Francisco Giants for the final wild-card spot.

    The Braves' recent stretch of winning five of six has revealed some fight in this team that they just hadn't shown this season.

    However, the Braves still have work to do over their final 35 games if they are to reach the postseason for the third straight season.

    It will certainly be a team effort, but there are certain players who must elevate their play if the Braves are to make the playoffs.

    Here's a look at five players who have to step up for the Braves to have a chance in the stretch run.

1. Jason Heyward

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    Manager Fredi Gonzalez recently put Jason Heyward back in the leadoff spot, and the move has paid off for the Braves.

    Since the switch, Heyward is hitting .273 with five runs scored, while the Braves are 6-2 in those games.

    The Braves need Heyward to continue playing well from the leadoff spot for the simple fact he can impact the game in multiple ways.

    His combination of power, plate discipline and speed make him a unique player, and the Braves are more dynamic when he's hitting and getting on base.

    In Braves wins, Heyward's OBP is 20 points higher and his OPS is 40 points higher.

    The Braves need a hot-hitting Heyward for the stretch run.

2. Freddie Freeman

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    Freddie Freeman is the Braves' most consistent, and arguably best, hitter.

    When he's not producing runs, the Braves offense generally suffers. Freeman's splits in Braves wins and losses this season are extreme.

    In losses, Freeman's slash line reads .258/.335/.411. In wins, it reads .332/.432/.567.

    Meanwhile, Freeman has hit 14 of his 17 home runs in Braves wins while driving in 49 of his 68 runs.

    The numbers speak volumes when it comes to Freeman and his production—the Braves need Freeman down the stretch.

3. Julio Teheran

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    The Braves gave Julio Teheran a six-year contract extension in the offseason, and he has rewarded them by becoming the team's ace.

    However, Julio struggled toward the end of the 2013 season, as he posted a 4.44 ERA in the months of September and October.

    In order to put together win streaks and make a push for the playoffs, you must have consistent pitching.

    For the Braves, every fifth day, they need to be able to rely on Teheran.

    It's a lot to ask of a 23-year-old, but that responsibility comes with the offseason extension and No. 1 label.

4. Ervin Santana

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    The Braves have got what they expected when they signed Ervin Santana to a one-year deal this spring training.

    He has been up and down but also ate a lot of innings for a depleted pitching staff.

    Santana wasn't great in Monday night's start but did enough with a six-run first inning cushion.

    The Braves could greatly benefit from another one of Santana's hot streaks.

    As you may recall, he posted a 3-0 record and 1.95 ERA in four April starts to begin this season.

    If he can regain that form, that would give the Braves a formidable top of the rotation that could push them into the playoffs.

5. Jordan Walden

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    The Braves bullpen hasn't been as dominant in 2014 as last season but still ranks a respectable fourth in the National League with a 3.15 ERA.

    Obviously, star closer Craig Kimbrel is a big reason for that, but so too is setup man Jordan Walden.

    Bridging the gap from starter to closer plays a huge part in the Braves' success. As Kimbrel is the top closer in the game, it is vital to have players who can get him the lead.

    Walden has been that man, and the Braves need a healthy and effective Walden down the stretch.

    Blown games from the bullpen are ones that can deflate a team and be a major blow to a team's postseason chances.

    The Braves can't afford an inconsistent Walden down the stretch. That's a recipe for disaster with a dominant closer for the ninth inning.